A sermon for September 18, 2016
The parable today of the “dishonest manager” can leave some scratching their heads. Why is the dishonest manager praised for his shrewdness? Is Jesus telling us that we should be shrewd, or even dishonest in our business dealings if it protects us? Perhaps, there’s something lost in the translation of this passage that sheds more light onto what exactly is being said here?
And, that’s the beauty of the parables, they’re not always the most straightforward, and this particular parable is perhaps the least straightforward of them all. But, if we delve deep into the social statuses of the players in this story, if we consider the audience that is listening to Jesus teach, if we consider where the parable ends and the teaching begins at the end of this passage, there is perhaps a lesson in here that is more straightforward than we think, but it’s not necessarily a lesson that we like to hear, particularly given our cultural understanding of what wealth, possessions, and business mean for us here, today.
This parable speaks to me about the struggle, perhaps even the near impossibility it is for many in this world to live an ethical life within the constructs of our contemporary society. How can someone live an ethical life when they are called to break the law, to skirt around the authorities, to be shrewd in their business dealings so that they can make a living. It’s perhaps not an honest living, but that’s not always an option for all of us. Are we even living an ethical life when we live into the standard accepted business practices of this world. Is business itself fundamentally ethical?
One of the hot button issues for this political season has centered around illegal immigration, specifically from Mexico and the countries of Central America. Talks of walls and rapists and murderers has dominated the news cycles, but what is really happening for those who are crossing the border illegally? These are people who are seeking out back breaking, mind numbing work, to make little pay, so that they can send that money back home in support of their families, or to build a small and humble life here in this country so that their children can have access to more resources and education than they ever had. Is this an ethical way of life? It breaks the law. It promotes questionable business tactics. It has often led to small-scale identity theft. And, on the surface, it reads as criminal. But, is it?
I have spent a large portion of my life living in areas where both legal and illegal immigrant migrant workers are prominent. Working in orchards and in fields in Central Washington, in slaughterhouses in Kansas, and the orchards of Southern Virginia, one truth about these people sticks with me: there is a hunger to provide for their family, in whatever way they can, with whatever opportunity they’re given. And to provide for one’s family is a goal that we all share. Being able to support our family, with enough, is what we strive for in our lives. In order to do this, many people in this world are faced with a dilemma, either starve and see their families suffer, or skirt the line of what is legal, ethical, acceptable, and find a way to make it work. So, yes, some of what they are doing is technically illegal, but wouldn’t you do the same if it came down to it?
Only, most of us don’t have to worry about this. Most of us here, are financially secure, or at least much more secure than others in our society. We have constant access to clean water, food, a roof over our heads. One of the reasons why it can be easy to look down upon those who are coming here illegally, questioning their intent, wishing to drive them out, is because we cannot imagine what it must be like to be in their situation. We cannot imagine what it must be like to be hungry every day, to have our families, our children, hungry every day. And, since we cannot imagine this, because it is unimaginable (or at the very least not a lot of fun to imagine) we ignore the reality of the situation and play up the fear of the situation: that evil illegal marauders roam our streets looking to abduct our women and children. It’s not the case, but it is the rhetoric, and it further ostracizes and alienates these people from any hope of living into the ethical life that we uphold. And it in turn allows those who would prosper off their backs to keep them in fear, to keep them in abject poverty, to pay them next to nothing, knowing that they’re grateful for even that.
So, sure, an ethical life may not be possible on the fringes of society. But, are we ourselves living ethical lives? Do we purport to the same standard that we loftily apply to the lowest social status in our culture?
The income gap continues to grow between the wealthiest in our country and the poorest. However, this is not a new reality. The wealthy and the poor have always been separated and kept apart. Where our culture differs is the emergent middle class. Those people who supposedly bridge a gap between the wealthy and the poor. These are the people that even as recent as 20 years ago fulfilled the American reality of 2 cars, a home in the suburbs, and 2 kids. And yet, this dream-fulfillment has started to slip away. The gap between the middle class and the poor is shrinking as fast as the gap between the middle class and the wealthy is growing. And, this is where we have to ask ourselves, are we living a just and ethical life, or are we buying into the game of wealth that is promoted in our society.
For, most of us in this place, in our communities, are the manager in this story. The wealthy owner up top controls, and on a whim or hearsay decides to fire and hire at will, just to keep things fresh, to bring in new blood. The poor, who have toiled the land, who owe a great debt because they simply are not given enough to live as pay for their work, must still bring to the wealthy master what is owed, so the manager shrewdly lowers their fees, so that he can garner their favor, because that gap from middle class manager to indebted poor is a simple a change in status away. This shrewdness is then applauded by the wealthy master. But, why? Why would the wealthy master applaud the manager changing what is owed to him? Perhaps, because it is exactly what the master would do. Perhaps, it is because this is the only way to protect yourself in this world. To skirt the ethical boundaries of business. To make good for yourself above all else.
And thus, we find ourselves stuck in a cycle. The only way to live comfortably, to stay one step ahead, is to live a life of shrewdness, to question the ethical boundaries, to skirt around them whenever it is helpful for your own bottom line. Because ultimately, what we all want is to protect and feed our families. But, the level we are told we must achieve in order to do so has been so skewed and distorted by our concern for and love of money, that we take after the manager in our dealings in this life. We protect ourselves. We concern ourselves with how to maintain our position, to climb the ladder to a higher status so that there exists a greater buffer between us and the bottom. And, when necessary, we are encouraged in our society to be loose with our ethics in order to do so. We are often rewarded when we do so if we can do it shrewdly. If we are loose with our ethics but operate within legal boundaries we are praised. We are bound to our worth through the dollar amount in our bank account, and we protect that for all we have, because that is what we are told we must do to be successful in this life.
And yet, Jesus, through this parable, is not saying that this is right. Even though the manager is praised, it’s not because he’s being set up to inherit the kingdom of God. Theologian “Christine Pohl, in an essay titled ‘Profit and Loss,’ makes a revealing point about how the parable uncovers the pervasiveness of our love of money. She contends that ‘Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.’”
And, as theologian G. Penny Nixon argues, “If we embrace this creative interpretation, the manager’s insight brings into sharp relief our own connections between resources and relationships. What means do we employ to accomplish good ends? What are our motivations behind the relationships we forge, and how are those relationships economically determined? Perhaps more searing questions are, how are our relationships shaped by class issues, and what must happen in our own lives for us to offer solidarity with the ‘least of these’ that Jesus so often mentions?”
It is clear from this teaching, and from all of Christ’s teaching, we can only serve one god, but we have to choose if that is the god of money or the Lord our God. Through this parable we are shown that our own relationships to wealth, to money, to stability and comfort, distorts and perverts our understanding of how it is we are to go about business in our culture. It distorts and perverts our understanding of how we should treat those who are the least in our society, who are simply trying to find the same comfort of life that many of us were simply born into. This parable makes us question seriously if it is possible to live an ethical and Godly life in this world, within this culture, within the parameters that this culture has taught us, or if we are simply worshiping at the feet of all that is powerful in this human world: money, rather than worshiping at the feet of all that is truly powerful: God. We simply cannot do both, so we have to ask ourselves which one will it be?